Stereotypes can be both good and bad. However, they all ultimately serve to maintain inequality. Negative stereotypes are particularly damaging when it’s focused on a particular social group, and as you’ll see, these stereotypes impact the way we live our lives regardless of whether we buy into them or not.
Patricia Devine, among other researchers, demonstrated that knowledge about stereotypes is universal. Endorsement of these stereotypes comes after learning about them as we grow older and start to form our own opinions. However, the stereotypes that people learn early in their lives will activate just as strongly for people who don’t endorse the stereotype, as the people who do endorse it. For example, when you think about a romantic relationship, even if you don’t identify as being heterosexual, you’re still likely to picture a man and a woman in a relationship.
Simply knowing about the stereotype can influence how you behave, even if you don’t endorse the stereotype. This is because once the stereotype is activated in your mind, unless you consciously monitor stereotype activations and reject it, the information may influence the other thoughts that pop into your mind after.
It’s also been found that there is a universal 2-stage stereotyping process. The first stage is the automatic processes, which happens unintentionally, without us being aware. They require very little effort to activate, and are uncontrollable. Simply seeing someone from a typically stereotyped social group is enough to activate automatic stereotypes, and the more associations you make between the group and the stereotype, the more accessible this stereotype becomes in the future.
The second stage, controlled processes, are the complete opposite to automatic processes: they are intentional, require awareness and a lot of effort, and are controllable. Awareness of the stereotypes is automatic, but the negative thoughts about certain social groups can be stopped by your control processes.
For example, most recently with Covid-19, it’s likely that people associated Asian individuals wearing masks with the virus – that would be your automatic process kicking in. So, the more prejudiced you are, the more you will associate that social group with that stereotype. But, your more reasonable side will probably tell you that no, not all Asian people have the virus and it’s not right to make that assumption – that’s your controlled process.
People who are less prejudiced will use their controlled processes to stop making this association. However, before you can use your control processes, you need to have enough time and cognitive capacity for your conscious reaction to develop and stop your automatic processes. That means things like feeling stressed, or your attention being divided can cause your control processes to be disrupted and lead you to use stereotypes. You also need to feel motivated enough to actively suppress your automatic responses.
Ultimately, the difference between someone who is highly prejudiced and someone who is less prejudiced, is the amount of effort they put in to control their automatic activation of stereotypes. Everyone is inherently prejudiced because of what we’ve been learning and seeing from a young age, but this is something we can try to control and unlearn over time.
You’re probably wondering now: how can I act and think in a less prejudiced manner? It’s important to note that it’s inevitable that you will, at some point, find yourself thinking stereotypical thoughts. However, when you do start thinking those thoughts, pause for a second and breathe. Realise that what you’re thinking has been ingrained into you, and that stereotypes, for the most part, lead to unfair and uninformed judgements.
So the next time you come across someone spewing stereotypical commentary, before you start getting aggressive with them because you think they’re an inherently bad person, consider the possibility that they may just be relying on their automatic processes because there’s a distraction in their lives right now.